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It's Come to This - http://www.myfridge/check_ice.html
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Feature Story

It's Come to This - http://www.myfridge/check_ice.html

New appliance portal technology from Sun Labs makes web connectivity cost-effective and useful for appliance makers. The technology incorporates a next-generation architecture that may change the way web servers serve.
Smaller, Smarter: A Different Kind of Web Server?
The JavaTM Virtual Machine that drives the home gateway is a different sort of web server. It is unlike the whopping, mainframe-like creatures that have evolved to power a stock exchange or run a consumer catalog website. Instead the server performs simple, helpful, device-aware tasks that don't require a large hardware overhead. In fact, the JVM applications require less than 10KB. Among the device-aware tasks: packetizing appliance data for transmission over Ethernet and wireless channels and clipping the HTML data for presentation appropriate to the end user device, whether a cell phone or Palm handheld LED screen, or converting it for access by a voice synthesis software.

For at least half a century, home automation exhibits at trade shows have piqued our curiosity by suggesting what the future may bring ten or twenty years hence. When the General Electric Appliances Company demonstrated a suite of web-connected appliances at the National Kitchen and Bath Show at Chicago's McCormick Place on April 7-9, they broke with that tradition. Demonstrating new technologies developed by Sun Microsystems Laboratories, their home automation exhibit showcased an existing kitchen website that looked more familiar than futuristic.

In front of the exhibit, onlookers huddled around cell phones and Palm VII devices located throughout the audience. What they glimpsed were web-clipped pages with URLs such as http://www.myfridge/temperature.html and with content like "The temperature in your fresh vegetable compartment is 40° F."

Data, sent from the refrigerator via a home gateway, integrated with the manufacturer's web site, also appeared on a larger "Web Pad" touchscreen on the kitchen counter. There, the pages were populated with links and photos and formatted like any HTML page on a web browser. In fact, these were real HTML pages and web browsers. The underlying technology here makes web-connected appliances cost-effective and attractive for manufacturers to build. The appliance portal technology was developed at Sun Microsystems Laboratories in Mountain View, California. "We decided to look at what the Web would be like three years from now," says Stephen Uhler. Uhler, who is the principal investigator for web application technologies, worked closely with colleagues Rinaldo Di Giorgio and Colin Stevens to design the technology. "What we came up with was something we can build now." In fact, the new appliance portal technology incorporates part of a next-generation Web application architecture, also being developed at Sun Labs, that can proxy, and aggregate web sites to large user communities from any connected device to any HTML browser over any Internet medium.

Manufacturers are more than dabbling in smart appliance research - they are building prototypes to prove designs. Some are launching products. The web is the medium in many approaches because HTML makes it easy for all of us to use. But the research has just begun to take on new and exciting directions. Appliance makers are looking to make smart appliances work for them.

A Compelling Proposition

The appliance portal technology evolved from concept to implementation with a relentlessly practical focus. That's because at each phase, Uhler and his colleagues knew they had to make the design attractive to an appliance industry eager to keep production costs low.

"We had to make them a compelling value proposition," Uhler recalls.

The emphasis was on designing the technology from the manufacturer's point of view. And that meant thinking about smart appliances as a means of helping manufacturers service their products remotely and develop "one-to-one" relationships with customers. Of course, it was all academic until the cost barrier could be broken. "The industry simply would not consider an embedded appliance capability if it cost more than a few dollars per unit."

"We did a research experiment," says Uhler, "and we came up with a strategy to deploy."

The nature of the experiment was simple: What can we embed in an appliance to create its telemetry - the temperature, pressure, parts-and-process status, and everything else that service and maintenance people want to know - and still meet the appliance industry's tight cost requirements? Those requirements forced Uhler to reject as too expensive any embedded device. In so doing, Uhler and his colleagues parted ways with an unspoken principle of current web appliance design.

That unspoken principle, placing a large multitasking operating system (such as the Microsoft Windows CE operating system) into the appliance to achieve an Internet capability, though a popular approach for web-connectivity architectures, adds overhead. A "fat" embedded device is expensive. It can also encumber the appliance with additional power supply, wiring, and environmental requirements.

The fat-device problem is one of the reasons why smart appliances, so far, have been confined mainly to concept exhibits and homes of the rich and curious.

Uhler, Di Giorgio, and Stevens took another tack. They agreed that the first task of the embedded device should be getting the appliance wired. "Once the appliance is on the network, we can separate the intelligence from the device," explains Uhler. This insight - actually a corollary of a famous Sun design principle ("The Network is the ComputerTM") - led to a canny design that combines a new twist on proven X10 technology with a 21st-century server architecture.

Something Old...

Uhler's insight led Sun Labs to explore a curious choice: embedding a low-cost, low-speed, power-line modem inside the appliance. The device is the size and weight of a light switch panel and adds less than $5 to the manufacturer's cost margin. And it uses a signaling protocol that is easily coupled with telemetric sensors inside the appliance.

As it is, the power-line modem has an ultra-slim profile, making virtually no operational demands on the appliance. The device sends and receives data over the same power line used by the appliance, so consumers do not need network connections for each appliance; the power cord becomes the network connection.

The power-line modem makes use of the proven, if decades old, X10 protocol technology. That posed the next challenge. The X10 signals are emitted from the appliance power cord at 1970 speeds (about 60 Baud). Converting and boosting the signals to make them available and responsive to a web client required a bit of magic from a new JavaTM technology-coded mini web server.

Something New

The mini web server is at the heart of the prototype, and it resides in the home gateway. The gateway could be a PC or a remote ISP server. Or it might be the mouse-sized interface board that Sun Labs created to demonstrate the appliance portal technology at McCormick Place.

The home gateway connects the appliances to the network by communicating with the embedded power-line modem. It makes up for the slow speed of the embedded device by running a background task that continuously polls the appliance for telemetric data. It then formats the data into HTML, and scales it to be device-aware and responsive. When a manufacturer places an appliance request from an Internet node, the data is available immediately and then constantly updated. This work is accomplished by the TINI (Tiny InterNet Interface) board inside the gateway.

"We built a small, embeddable modem to interface appliances and PCs or home gateways to the power-line," says Di Giorgio. The advantage is that "the modem communicates using the same cord that powers the appliance." This hop in the connection between the appliance and the home gateway requires no dedicated wiring (such as Ethernet 10BaseT) or the on-board computational resources to power it. In fact, the core of the modem is a low-cost IC. The home gateway converts the X10 signals to HTML and brings them up to web-ready speeds. The Sun Labs design can accommodate other power-line protocols, too.

The TINI board "acts as a smart, fast, proxy for the unintelligent, slow appliances," says Di Giorgio. It consists of a microcontroller with a multitasking operating system, a TCP/IP network stack, and a Java Virtual Machine. All of this supports the mini web server that allows users to interact with devices, supporting applications for appliance control and reporting through versatile HTML and Java user interfaces. It can accommodate Java CardTM/SmartCard authentication and optional encryption, although these were not required for the McCormick Place demo.

The mini web server makes use of the URL Programming Interface or "UPI." Developed at Sun Labs, the UPI implements a URL for each appliance, in effect creating an appliance network of linked HTML pages.

The real trick, according to Uhler, is how the server "proxies" those pages to connected browsers anywhere - to homeowners at work, to appliance maintenance manufacturers for troubleshooting. For PDAs and cell phones with smaller viewers, the gateway performs web-clipping. For the embedded device, the gateway accepts HTTP requests on behalf of the appliances and then reissues the requests, simplified, over the appliance network.

"The mini-server integrates an HTML-based presentation and service layer for any appliance," says Di Giorgio. "Like a traditional Web server that answers to URL requests, universal access to devices from any Internet node is achieved."

Looking to Leverage

What this achieves for appliance manufacturers is a familiar, HTML interface and easy access to home appliances via a host of devices from phones to PDAs to networked computers. The benefits are compounded for appliance manufacturers. First, they can talk directly to a malfunctioning appliance, running diagnostics remotely for more efficient service and parts delivery. Second, according to Uhler, manufacturers get a "one-on-one, ongoing customer relationship" with consumers. At the very least, manufacturers will likely know when an appliance reaches its operational end of life and when consumers are in the market for a new one.

The same technology that makes appliances available as HTML pages on the web may be ripe for application in dozens of process-control and other manufacturing settings.

Manufacturing and inventory control environments are already busy building company intranets and B2B extranets to integrate software tasks. The economy-wide browser boom, Di Giorgio hopes, is paving the way for Sun Labs appliance portal design, especially the UPI and device-scaling capabilities. Is a factory portal design in the offing? "Virtually every plant in the world has its own set of unique protocols for communicating with devices, which adds to cost and complexity." Implementing a web-connected factory portal design, Di Giorgio believes, would improve the outlook, simplify tasks, and unclutter the proprietary "device space."

Of course, the appliance portal technology will likely catch on first in the home automation market. It has enormous potential as a low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to "wiring the house" with embedded devices that require high bandwidth, and expensive computational resources and sophisticated maintenance as well.

"There's a difference between the vision people have and how to begin to get there," Uhler says. "You've got to find something you can deploy today."

Related Links

JavaWorld - How handlers work in Web-accessible home automation: Using Sun Labs' Brazil server as your starting point.
Brazil Project - The Future of Web Application Development

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